– Come on, Chau. Look, suddenly you became a scared mouse.
– I just can’t move my legs, Uncle.
– You were so courageous at the top of the lighthouse this morning. No one could stop you then.
– I know. But I can’t manage to stand. It is okay to sit here.
– The path down to the stones is very safe there, I can guarantee. Why you give up when you are just few more steps from your beloved destination. Don’t tell me now you dislike taking pictures.
– Please go exploring yourself. You see I can sit here taking photos.
– Oh no, a very brave girl who came to this far-off land herself that I admired a lot suddenly vanishes into thin air.
My obstinacy couldn’t discourage Uncle Seven, a local motor-taxi driver, though. He took the initiative to step down to Gành Đá Dĩa (Da Dia Reef), breathtaking plate-shaped black rock reef ranges situated about 60km away from Tuy Hoa, the capital city of Phu Yen, Vietnam’s central province which borders Nha Trang, the host city of Miss Universe 2008 pageant.
Da Dia Reef is one of the two places I aimed to explore in Phu Yen, the sole destination of my unexpected vacation which I decided to make right after learning of the so-called “technology Shabbat,” a regular practice of unplugging which has proved useful to several Westerners as a way to hit the reset button on their sense of balance. Following several ailing weeks with recurring headaches, achy legs, shoulders, ears and eye infections, I found that I needed nothing but a lone vacation in a tranquil place. I was convinced that the technology Shabbat would be a great way to help unwind my tiring body and mind.
My decision surprised my cousin whom I came to visit before heading to Tan Son Nhat Airport to depart for Phu Yen.
– Are you going there for your story?
– For my vacation actually.
– You are going alone?
– Yes, as you see.
– That would be very boring.
– I don’t think so. I am familiar with going alone and I think I can make new friends.
Following a 80-minute flight by a fully occupied ATR 72 plane, Tuy Hoa, a 107-square-meter city of more than 200,000 people, welcomed me in a chilly, windy afternoon which later I found was attributed in part to its position close to the sea.
No Facebook, no email and GPS neither
Before my arrival, I designed my vacation in the form of the “technology Shabbat”. As a technology Shabbat practitioner, Tiffany Shlain, an American filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards, said that every Friday night, she and her husband turn off all cell phones, televisions and computers to go offline until the end of Saturday.
“At least one day a week, you need to get your mind in a different mode,” said Shlain who Newsweek called her one of the “Women shaping the 21st century.” “Every week, your brain – and your soul – needs to be reset.”
So I decided to go traveling without any handheld devices but my Canon holding my hand. No Facebook, no emails, no GPS and as less texts and calls as possible – my iPhone has been set in a “Do not disturb” mode before I boarded the plane – during my vacation.
I wanted to be an old-fashioned tourist who would resort to no high-tech devices to find her way. I wanted to be an adventurer willing to struggle while visiting a new city. I wanted to disconnect with Google to get to know local people and to learn new things on my own. These are rules I keep telling myself that I would have to strictly stick to until I get back home.
“Sorry, can you spell what you just said?”
Soon after getting out of Tuy Hoa Airport, I hopped into the only Mai Linh taxi parked in front of the airport entrance to the downtown hotel where I booked over the phone. On the car, I found that though we speak the same native language, it is quite challenging to understand what the young driver said. That reminded the very fact that people in different regions of the same country speak different accents and dialects. That reminded me of my experience in Hue, Da Nang, Quy Nhon, other well-known destinations in the central part of Vietnam, which I traveled to 11 years ago. That also reminded me a highly acclaimed Vietnamese comedy which features differences in accents and dialects which lead to humorsome misunderstandings.
There were several moments I kept asking Cuong, the fast-spoken driver, to repeat what he just said. Sometimes I just caught half of his words. When I asked him, for example, to suggest the best place in Phu Yen to enjoy the special porridge cooked with pig organs and eaten with thin very rice noodles which is called banh hoi chao long in Vietnamese, my mind got stuck with cracking his pronunciation. After several efforts, I surrendered by asking him to spell word by word for me since what I got was “xẻ hòa vin” which made me thought that might be the name of a restaurant owned by people of a minority ethnic group. Thanks to his patient spelling, I remembered a popular rule that central Vietnamese people tend to pronounce the vowel “a” into “e”. In order words, the best place I should go if I would like to taste a bowl of authentic banh hoi chao long is “xã (village) Hòa Vinh”, about 12km from Tuy Hoa downtown, according to Cuong.
Not only local residents’ accent challenges me, mine also puzzles the hotel’s receptionists and waitresses of the restaurant across the street several times. They said that my different accent immediately tells them that I am a newcomer in this town. The only person who understands me at ease and so do I is the hotel’s chef who said that she originally is from Vinh Long, a province next to my home city of Can Tho while serving me one of the typical dishes – thick slices of Atlantic tuna eaten with greens and wasabi, my favorite spice.
A 10,000 VND bowl of banh canh
With the help of a guard whose uniform shirt carries the numbers “007”, I placed my stuff into the first floor room in a five-story hotel on Hung Vuong Street, which I later found that is the largest and longest road in the city, running between the way to Tuy Hoa Airport and the National Highway N0 1. The wood covered room looked perfect with a white window overlooking Hung Vuong Street as I requested, a large television hung on the wall facing the queen bed and a dressing table which is big enough to be turned into a working table. After a short rest, I put a patterned turquoise scarf around my neck then stepped downstairs to ask the receptionist to recommend a good place nearby to have local food.
Under her instruction, I turned right and started strolling along Hung Vuong Street. The night fell. The city lighted up. I was strolling against the rising cold wind. When reaching a four-way interaction, I made a right turn to the street which scattered shops selling Vietnamese-style hamburgers which look exactly like the ones in the South. No attractive!
Despite my stomach growling, I kept walking and looking around to find a desired food stall. I stopped at a small dead-end street in the third right corner which features three crowded food shops. I chose the third on the left because I wanted to have something hot and watery, because it offers only one kind of food, bánh canh chả cá (rice noodle soup with fried pounded fish) and because it has a strange name: “Năng Nở” (Frequently Blossoming).
I ordered a bowl of bánh canh chả cá and as usual, a glass of iced tea, my ever favorite beverage. What surprised me was that the shop brought only the bowl of bánh canh which looked a bit different from the kind of bánh canh in my home city. The noodles are thin and small and look more like bún (rice vermicelli). I am familiar with the kind of bánh canh which is short and stout. There was no glass of iced tea. Thinking that they must have forgotten my iced tea, I made another request. Still no iced tea when I nearly finished my food. When I made the fourth order, a chubby woman in black rubber boots went by my table saying that “want to have iced tea, go and get it. No one serves it here.”
What she said helped me understand that the shop doesn’t sell iced tea and customers have to serve themselves the free-of-charge iced tea.
– Oh sorry, I don’t know your routine. I am not from here – I turned my back and talked to the owner whose face features several crow’s feet.
– I see, replied she who a minute later carried a big glass of iced tea and a small empty glass to my table.
That tiny cultural shock, which I have never anticipated to experience when traveling within my home country, gladdened me in my first night in Phu Yen since I knew that I just learned something I might haven’t known if I hadn’t set my foot in this land. The lovely talk between a good-looking girl and her little sister at the next table which I overheard made me guess that she just returned home for the Tet holiday. I decided to start a small chat with her before concluding my not-too-bad dinner.
– You were born here, weren’t you?
– Yes, but now I am not living here.
– Where are you living?
– I am studying in Sai Gon.
– Oh really. I just flied from there this afternoon. You returned home for Tet?
– Right. I just got back yesterday. Are you a journalist?
– Why do you say so?
– Because I noticed you took photos of your food.
– I love to photo my new dishes. You know, bánh canh here looked strange to me. It looked more like bún in my home region of Mekong.
– Yes, I also noticed that difference when I was studying in Sai Gon.
The different shape of banh canh and the unavailability of iced tea surprised me but they were not strong enough to shock me. What shocked me only came when I stood up and asked for the bill.
– Your bill is 10,000 đồng (less than 0.5 USD).
– Only 10,000 đồng. Why so cheap, Aunt?
– That’s my price. I always charge like this.
– In recent years, I have never had any cheap but delicious like yours.
I said goodbye to Thư and her sister after exchanging phone numbers with her just in case I ask her for instructions during my trip in her home province.
– Walk safely, sister.
I didn’t know if what she said was a local way of saying goodbye or a warning to a newcomer who would walk alone under the half-light. But it did warm up my heart on the way back to the hotel in the chill. When I returned to the hotel, the clock was ticking close to 7 p.m. Learning that the town usually hits the stack around 10 p.m., I decided to hire a motorcycle to explore the city at night. A little nervous when I first drove the Attila scooter, which was the only motorcycle left in the hotel’s parking, since I haven’t ever used throttle grips.
I got back to the hotel around 9 p.m. The first day of practicing technology Shabbat, I could say that I made it without any discomfort. Neither Facebook nor emails. Only the final part of Jurassic Attack before a tight sleep until over 8 a.m. on Thursday.
Explore Phu Yen’s beauty on a motorbike
After one day resting in the room, partly due to the dull weather which was a great chance to finish two half-read books, I headed to Bãi Môn – Mũi Đại Lãnh (Mon Beach – Dai Lanh Cape) which features the 110-meter lighthouse – the thing that I haven’t ever seen in my life. Feel excited! The receptionist said the dual destination is one of the must-see landscapes in Phu Yen after Da Dia Reef. As I requested, the hotel connected me to a looking-credible motorbike taxi who has reportedly a lot experience in taking tourists around Phu Yen at a bargain price.
It is too expensive to take a taxi and too risky to drive a motorcycle on my own given the fact that the journey would go through mountain passes along the way and I failed to bring my driver’s license. Cuong, the taxi driver who took me to the hotel from the airport, said the trip by his taxi back and forth to Da Dia Reef costs 600,000 VND (28.5 USD) including three hours waiting there.
The 67-year-old local driver charged me 500,000 VND (less than 25 USD) for a two-way trip which would take me to Dai Lanh Cape and Da Dia Reef which he said sit about 100 km from each other. For this flat rate, he said I would pay for meals, drinks and possible fees along the way. I accepted what he said with two conditions that he must stop wherever I request for my photo-taking and he must drive with extreme care.
Later when I got back from the room to put on one more sweater because he said it would be much colder since we would go along the coast, he changed his mind and said the fare didn’t include the gas and that I would pay him extra money if we get back to the hotel beyond 4 p.m. I told him that these things were the last ones I compromised because no more change should be made once the deal is stricken.
We set off on Hung Vuong Street, heading to the way leading to Tuy Hoa Airport to which I drove by myself the day prior to enjoy the sea wind in front of the airport. He said he was taking a new road which is less traffic and more beautiful because it runs along the coast. Along the large road still under construction are dozens of vast shrimp farms facing the sea and the mountains.
About 20 minutes into the journey, I found myself enjoyable and relaxed in between picturesque coasts and mountain ranges which later I knew that are named Truong Son Range known to the world during the Vietnam Wars. The air is purely resh. Only a few motorbikes were on the road which dotted with herds of bulls and cows nibbling grasses at the foot of the mountains. The natural scenery marveled me so much that I couldn’t help asking Uncle Seven, the driver, to stop several times for photos. In the first stop, I recognized that to make my journey perfect, I needed to instruct him some basic photography skills.
After two hours of driving, stopping and photographing, his Honda Wave motorbike reached our first destination – Mon Beach and Dai Lanh Cape featuring a lighthouse which looks appealing from afar with a long tortuous path leading to it. We stopped at the only cottage on the foot of a section of Truong Son mountain which separates Bai Mon by several dwarfish dunes of sand and separates the lighthouse by less-than-one-kilometer stairs, according to the young man selling beverages in the cottage where two pepper-and-salt-haired tourists men were sipping hot tea. Uncle Five, the taller man, said he, who is a Phu Yen resident, and his in-law, who comes from Hoi An, about 400 km away, have never been to Mon Beach and Dai Lanh Cape (also known as Mũi Điện (Dien Cape), Mũi Ba (Ba Cape) and Mũi Nạy (Nay Cape).
The fact that Uncle Seven and two men were very interested in climbing to the lighthouse inspired me to join them. I was a bit hesitant after looking at the zigzag mountain path leading to the lighthouse. With the company of three middle-aged men, I set my foot on the top of 26-meter Dai Lanh Lighthouse after taking 110 wooden steps inside the tower by noon, overlooking the East Sea from the altitude of 110 meters.
Though I did fear that the strongest gusts of wind which I ever experienced might blow me into the immense East Sea which dotted with fishing vessels bound for the seashore, that fear still couldn’t stop me from taking photos of Mon Beach, Dai Lanh Cape, the East Sea and the working vessels. While Uncle Five and his in-law just spent a short moment to look at the surroundings then rushed downstairs for safety, Uncle Seven patiently took my photos and waited for me until I finished taking photos to my liking. Before closing the doors at the top of the lighthouse, he and I stayed for some more minutes looking at the powerful light which is visible to mariners within 27 nautical miles, according to one of the five lighthouse keepers who prefers to stay anonymous due to his job regulations. He charged us each 10,000 VND for a trip on the top of the lighthouse and let us to go sightseeing as long as we desired.
The rain suddenly fell while we stepped back to the ground. Eying around the lighthouse, I grew a bit envious of the men in charge of taking care of the lighthouse – a gazebo overlooking the sea and several ones next to the cape, a vegetable lot, a lot of fruit trees and chickens wandering around the tranquil atmosphere. The keeper said the vegetables, fruits and chickens basically support their daily meals. For me, the presence of their family members would complete their lives in this lonely area.
On the way back to the cottage, while the two men tried to go as quickly as they could for fear that the rain would come back soon, Uncle Seven and I ambled, enjoying the beauty of the nature and taking many more photos along the way despite we had no raincoats. That was when I found that my efforts in guiding him to take photos paid off and that we were like-minded in terms of traveling.
We said goodbye to Phong, the 26-year-old son of the cottage owner, who gave me his father’s mobile phone number and suggested me to call Uncle Ten, his dad, in case I want to be served local seafood in my next trip. On the way back to Tuy Hoa for lunch and then head to Da Dia Reef, Uncle Seven took me to the regular road which he said would go by Vũng Rô, a renowned bay in Phu Yen and Đèo Cả (Ca Pass), one of the most hazardous passes in the central part of Vietnam which lies between Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa, a province to which Nha Trang belongs and featuring hazardous hairpin bends.
Though I enjoyed myself a lot in Dai Lanh Cape, I found myself most enjoyable in Da Dia Reef where I arrived in more than once in two days. There did I learn that if I tried hard enough, if I was persistent enough and if I had a good company, which luckily I did in my final day in Phu Yen to keep pushing me up and giving me a hand when I struggled, I could defeat my fear and become surprisingly stronger, if not pleasurable, in the face of dangers. (to be continued)
(Phu Yen, January 2014)